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Race: Debunking a Scientific Myth (Tamu Anthropology) (Texas A&M University Anthropology Series) [Hardcover]

Ian Tattersall , Rob DeSalle

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Book Description

16 Sep 2011 Texas A&M University Anthropology Series (Book 15)
Race has provided the rationale and excuse for some of the worst atrocities in human history. Yet, according to many biologists, physical anthropologists, and geneticists, there is no valid scientific justification for the concept of race. To be more precise, although there is clearly some physical basis for the variations that underlie perceptions of race, clear boundaries among "races" remain highly elusive from a purely biological standpoint. Differences among human populations that people intuitively view as "racial" are not only superficial but are also of astonishingly recent origin. In this intriguing and highly accessible book, physical anthropologist Ian Tattersall and geneticist Rob DeSalle, both senior scholars from the American Museum of Natural History, explain what human races actually are--and are not--and place them within the wider perspective of natural diversity. They explain that the relative isolation of local populations of the newly evolved human species during the last Ice Age--when "Homo sapiens" was spreading across the world from an African point of origin--has now begun to reverse itself, as differentiated human populations come back into contact and interbreed. Indeed, the authors suggest that all of the variety seen outside of Africa seems to have both accumulated and started reintegrating within only the last 50,000 or 60,000 years--the blink of an eye, from an evolutionary perspective. The overarching message of "Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth" is that scientifically speaking, there is nothing special about racial variation within the human species. These distinctions result from the working of entirely mundane evolutionary processes, such as those encountered in other organisms.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Texas A & M University Press (16 Sep 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1603444254
  • ISBN-13: 978-1603444255
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 15.7 x 2.3 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,500,206 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"In "Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth, "they [the authors] dismantle the biological notion of race...the authors argue that a valid justification for the concept of race does not exist...that all the variations we characterize as 'racial' accumulated over a relatively short time span...an informative, well-researched, and well-written contribution to the scientific, intellectual (and even mundane) discourse on the lingering problem of race."--Okori Uneke, "International Social Science Review"--Dr. Okori Uneke"International Social Science Review" (05/12/2013)

About the Author

IAN TATTERSALL, curator emeritus in the American Museum of Natural History, is also the author of "Paleontology: A Brief History of Life" (Templeton Press, 2010), T"he Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution" (Oxford University Press, 2009), and "The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE "(Oxford University Press, 2008). ROB DESALLE is a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. He curated the American Museum of Natural History's new Hall of Human Origins (2006) and has written more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications and several books. Tattersall and DeSalle recently coauthored "Human Origins: What Bones and Genomes Tell Us about Ourselves" (Texas A&M University Press, 2007).

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-encouraging book 28 Nov 2011
By Marvin L. Mcconoughey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The authors strive diligently to explain the shifting concepts of race, the flawed arguments for its objective reality, and how the human race is is of recent origin, yet undergoing changes, past and present, which makes attempts at consistent racial classification absurd. They assert that "[O]ur notions of race are born in our heads or are acquired by them." And, later, "it's a hopeless and counterproductive task to recognize and categorize discrete 'faces,' or subspecies among Homo Sapiens today." ... "Biologically, race is better characterized as a non-problem."

The authors, in my view, have amply demonstrated some of the many pitfalls of assigning imagined racial differences as the sole source of a great many human variations.

As I read the book, I found myself thinking of the concept "love." It is something that nearly all have experienced and recognize. The genetic basis, if any, of why some love deeply and some not at all remains largely unexplored. Yet, love is a useful and deeply held construct, however flawed, incomplete, and difficult to define and extricate from surrounding facts and influences.

This book provides ample cautionary reasons to avoid facile racial characterization. It does not, in my view, and at the current stage of genetic research, demonstrate that categorization is without hope or merit. For that reason, expect the government to continue using the concept while asserting, as the census bureau does, that it is a social construct. The real differences behind our current understandings of race have yet to be fully defined. Readers in this field should be aware that many excellent books exist on race, IQ, and their historical controversies.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Classification with consequences 22 July 2013
By Art Shapiro - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Racial typologists have often claimed, with reason, that if human beings were just any biological species, the things we call "races" would be named as taxonomic subspecies. The fact that they're not (actually they have been, but the nomenclature is not generally recognized or accepted) is taken as evidence that the matter is so politically and socially charged as to prevent the normal exercise of taxonomic judgment. Those who, like the authors of this book, would like the entire notion of "race" to go away, have little choice but to acknowledge the point--and then point out that there is in fact no biological concept of the subspecies anyway, whether one is dealing with moths, kangaroos, or people. A subspecies is anything a taxonomist finds worthy of naming as such, and is thus entirely subjective, with no rigorous scientific criterion for taxonomic recognition. (This is a problem for endangered-species law too, insofar as it allows for protection of subspecies.) During the height of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, there was a tendency to view taxonomic subspecies as species in the making. With the advent of molecular genetics and especially genomics, it is now perfectly clear that taxonomic recognition cannot be taken as a good predictor of genetic differentiation. Some things that look very different are nearly identical genomically, and some things that are virtually identical in appearance show deep historical separation from their nearest relatives.
All of this is explained very well in this book, which makes the point (over and over again!) that our biological species is very young on a geologic time scale, that the processes of regional differentiation that led to the existence of what are commonly called "races" are perfectly normal and typical evolutionary processes, that the genetic differences among such "races" as quantifiable at the molecular level are minuscule and mostly apparently non-adaptive, and that (as "progressive" anthropologists have argued for several decades), "race" is at best a statistical concept that cannot be properly applied at the level of the individual. But as realists, the authors know that dismissing "race" as a biological construct will not make it go away as a sociocultural one. It merely weakens, if not removes, a prop commonly used by racial advocates of all stripes to support whatever claims they are making.
One of the best things in this book is its detailed dissection of racialized vs. personalized medicine in the light of contemporary genomics. I don't know a more lucid layman's explanation in print. Unfortunately, even this treatment is too technical for the average reader, whose eyes may glaze over after two or three pages of GWAS, SNPs, LD and AIMs. A pity, because even intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates have misunderstood and seriously overestimated the ability of these methods to tell us our ancestry and to define optimal medical treatments for our illnesses. Medical practitioners in general would do well to read Chapter 5, as this material is only now beginning to appear in medical-school curricula. Legal professionals also would benefit from it, both as it pertains to criminal forensics and, in the medical sphere, to personal injury/tort law.
I have two specific quibbles with the book. One: the discussion of ring species on pp.73-74 is garbled. The description of the California salamander example is both impossible to follow and geographically incorrect, and the claim that there are "many" such cases (p.73) is false, and belied by the fact that the California salamander case is the only one generally adduced in textbooks. A minor point, especially since the matter is largely irrelevant to human evolution. Two: While the authors seldom fail to identify or dissect the political biases of the racial typologists they discuss (the prime example being Carleton Coon), they do not do the same when citing or quoting authorities they agree with. Richard Lewontin, one of the most-frequently cited of these, is openly Marxist but is never identified as such. The late Stephen J. Gould, who did much to popularize the "mismeasure of man," was some sort of leftist, though just what kind and how much of one is still being debated years after his death. This is probably an unconscious slip on the part of the authors, but it can be interpreted badly. (The fact that they correctly identify the early anti-racist anthropologist Ashley Montagu as "ne Israel Ehrenberg" could be read by the very sensitive as somehow anti-Semitic, or tending to discredit his positions. That is clearly not their intent. Maybe they so identified him as a pre-emptive strike, lest they be accused of concealing his true ethnicity.) These quibbles merely underscore how politically touchy it is to say anything at all about race. This book says a lot.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly informative and clearly written 7 Nov 2012
By W. Cheung - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
With a clear prose, both authors prosecute the case very well that race is more a social and cultural construct than a sound biological reality. A significant portion of the book demonstrates that Homo sapiens is, surprise, surprise, a single species. Within a single species all members by deifinition can interbreed. The book then presents firm and indisputable data, based on genetics, that human beings have always interbred since the end of Ice Age. It was due to geographic isolation in the past that different groups developed different characteristics, primarily through genetic drift and the founder effect. However, once physical isolation and barriers had dissipated, interbreeding amongst these various groups commenced, and reintegration occured. Any "pure group" never ever existed and never will. While these should all be quite obvious, the human obsession to classify things in the universe can lead us astray. The only remedy is sound science which this book amply provides.
4.0 out of 5 stars A helpful book with some weaknesses 18 Aug 2014
By Molly - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There are many useful discussions in this book. One of the best is a deconstruction of TV shows about the “genetic ancestry” of celebrities like Stephen Colbert. Two circles are displayed, one of which shows Colbert’s purported “100% white" ancestry (based on ancestry informative variable sites). The other circle depicts the rest (99%) of Colbert’s variable genetic sites, which are shared by all populations in similar frequencies and thus are “African” in origin. Looked at in that way, the variable part of Colbert’s genome, like that of all of ours, is nearly all African because of the recent African origin of our species and the much more recent migrations out of Africa.

I have to admit that I had hoped for more from this book, based on the authors’ smart takedown of “A Troublesome Inheritance” (“Mr. Murray, You Lose the Bet” in GeneWatch (6/30/14). (I also enjoyed Tattersall’s “Masters of the Planet.” This book is a sort of hybrid between an academic discussion of human evolution and population genetics and a book aimed at a general audience, and is not entirely successful as either. I applaud the authors’ conviction that the notion of biological race must be defeated on scientific, objective grounds. They are at their best showing that human populations have always mixed and mated, and that cluster analysis doesn't prove that “race” exists. However, they fail to convey the urgency of the question, or the grimness of its social reality (as I write this, the city of Ferguson, MO is still enveloped in tear gas following the gunning down of an unarmed young black man by the police). They also don’t clarify the strongest arguments against biological ‘race’ until the end of the book. They readily lapse into academic jargon (the word “penecontemporaneous” is tossed in without definition!) , and some discussions seem to begin in the middle, as at an academic conference. Notably, the significance for race of the “Lewontin effect” (within-group variability is much higher than the additional between-group variability) needs to be explained with more clarity before getting into a debate with A.G.F. Edwards’ “Lewontin fallacy” and offering a rebuttal. The discussion of substructure analysis in GWAS is overly technical and would benefit from more examples. The results of whole-genome sequencing of Venter, Tutu's DNA etc could have been clarified using the Venn diagrams in the original publication (and one of the most interesting findings was how very different the two San genomes sequenced were from each other!) Scientists reading this book won’t be happy with the authors’ choice of a “further reading” section in place of endnotes, making it a chore to look up sources.

I expect books of this sort to be careful in fact-checking. So I was disappointed to see a superficial discussion in one of the early chapters about males with 5-alpha reductase deficiency (who may appear female at birth but at adolescence undergo virilization to phenotypic males). In a discussion of natural selection, the authors give the impression that men with 5AR are fully fertile, which is far from true. Reasons include lower sperm count, (often) undescended testicles, and hypospadias. (There are some very rare cases in which men with 5AR have fathered children naturally, but that was after surgery for hypospadias. Their sperm are often viable so they can father children with some medical intervention). This lapse annoys me because similar mistakes occur in many genetics textbooks which just copy stories from other textbooks without bothering to look at the sources. Teachers will copy this one, too.

In the chapter on forensics they say that the Innocence Project has saved over 200 men from death row and give the impression that the purpose of the Innocence Project is to exonerate people wrongly given the death penalty. The number they cite is surely the total number exonerated at the time the book was written. The Innocence Project works to exonerate the wrongly convicted, whether they are on death row or serving long sentences. As of today (2014) they have exonerated 317 prisoners, 18 of whom had been sentenced to death before their convictions were overturned. When either of these lapses could have been corrected with a moment’s Googling, it makes me worry about the accuracy of details I'm not familiar with.
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